BY PHIL FITZPATRICK
WHEN YOU REACH A CERTAIN AGE unexpected things oft times pop up to remind you of how much the world can change over less than a lifetime.
I’m not thinking so much of physical change, such as advancements in technology, but rather changes in the way people think. Technological change is, after all, largely superficial and ultimately of doubtful consequence - basically all it does is make it easier and quicker to do the same old stuff.
We are familiar with the good old days and, to a lesser extent, the bad old days. The poet Marlene S Lewis’ first novel, Ruth, describes some of those halcyon days but more often than not it reminds us of other things in the past with which we might not be so comfortable today.
Ruth is a white school girl brought up on a plantation in Papua in the late 1950s. During her holidays from boarding school in Australia she falls pregnant to her lifelong friend, Tommy. To make matters worse Tommy is a half caste.
Lewis’ book follows the trials and tribulations of Ruth as she battles to keep her child back in Australia. The story interweaves the terrible attitudes to unwed mothers at the time and the unfortunate baggage of inter-racial relations in both Australia and Papua.
At the same time the novel also reveals the cruelty and hypocrisy involved. My wife is a nurse and she worked at McBrides in Adelaide in the late 1970s where unwed mothers were sent to have their babies. They never saw their children; the babies were whisked away for adoption straight away. This is the context in which Ruth’s story is set.
Ruth’s father, to quote her brother, rooted half the village adjacent to their plantation and drove her mother to suicide yet he could not abide the idea of his daughter having relations with a half caste. That aversion turns out to be deeper and much more sinister than the reader might expect.
At one point Lewis notes that Papuan attitudes (meaning white attitudes) tended to lag a long way behind those on the mainland, meaning Australia. It brings to mind the adage that the further north one goes in the Antipodes the redder the necks.
Despite the racist jibes and slut tag, Ruth and her dark-skinned son eventually make good in Australia.
Ruth’s redemption reflects that of her biblical counterpart in many ways. I’m not sure if Lewis did this deliberately but for readers thus inclined it might have extra meaning – exactly what I’m not sure - these sorts of allusions escape me but I thought I’d throw it in for what it’s worth.
As a successful cotton farmer she eventually goes back to Papua on the cusp of independence to sort out the plantation affairs. There she sees the beginnings of the eventual decline of the country, both morally and physically, and confronts the appalling past of her family head on. There is a throwaway aside that suggests that independence might have been a bit premature.
I don’t know much about Marlene S Lewis apart from the fact that she came from East Kent in England to Australia as a ten year old migrant in 1965. She lived in Sydney and worked for a while in rural NSW and Queensland.
I’m not even sure if she has been to Papua; there are a few little things in the book which don’t ring true – geographical things mostly, referring to the Gulf as a province in 1972, talking about the ‘patrol office’, that sort of stuff - but the general reader is unlikely to notice them and they don’t detract from a well-told story anyway.
It is a good book; well-written, free of those annoying typos so prevalent today, and written tightly enough and with a hint of mystery to keep the reader, even us blokes, interested to the end.